Just a few short months ago, Greenwich Village author Norman Savage was on the verge of earning a book deal with a large New York publisher for his memoir, Junk Sick: Confessions of an Uncontrolled Diabetic.
Then in October, the market crashed, consumer spending seized, and the publishing industry was suddenly less willing to take risks on unproven authors. The deal disappeared.
It’s a story we’ll likely see played out over and over again as talented authors learn they no longer have a home in the highest caste of authordom.
Norman Savage is an author who deserves to be published. His storytelling is vivid, raw and unforgettable. In Junk Sick, he chronicles a life of addiction, diabetes and hard living that at age 62 has left him with deteriorating health, the scars of quadruple bypass surgery and four amputated toes.
But Savage doesn’t want our sympathy. No, he wants something else.
I’m proud to present an interview with Norman Savage, who last week published Junk Sick on Smashwords. In our interview, Savage spoke openly about a life lived teetering on the edge of euphoria and oblivion.
Warning: This interview contains mature language and subject matter not suitable for children.
[Mark Coker] – Describe your new book, Junk Sick: Confessions of an Uncontrolled Diabetic.
[Norman Savage] – Junk Sick is my attempt to bring all that was fractured in my life–family, diabetes, drug addiction, alcoholism, women, jobs, madness, mayhem, ecstasy and suicide ramblings–into a coherent and readable whole. It tries to explain how and why I married two different conditions–diabetes and addiction–into one unitary structure, me. Both acts–the taking of insulin and the injecting of dope or the drinking of booze–implies intent and desperation, each of them uses a syringe to bridge one world into another and all the substances are short-acting.
[Mark Coker] – How long did it take you to write the book?
[Norman Savage] – About 20 years, though I’ve been writing most of my life. I began publishing my poetry in little mags and presses in the 1960’s. In fact, Susan Graham Mingus, the wife of the late bassist Charles Mingus, first published me and had Andy Warhol take the pictures for the spread. The first draft of <span style="font-style: italic;">Junk Sick</span> was written circa 1985 and then from a kind of cowardice brokered by booze and dope it was shelved. From time to time, I would re-engage and edit it, but not until Thanksgiving of 2007 did I really begin to edit and update it.
[Mark Coker] – When you first contacted me, you had just lost out on a potential book deal for Junk Sick with Farrar, Straus & Giroux. What happened?
[Norman Savage] – In 2007, I was invited to the Thanksgiving dinner of an old friend who I’d met almost thirty years earlier at a bar where I worked. I’d always declined previous invitations because I’m never really comfortable around most people I don’t know and am not much a fan of polite chatter. I never really know what to say. But I’d lived a solo life for a long time now at that point and thought I needed the company and a home-cooked meal. Joanie was, and is, a terrific cook.
It also was a kind of challenge to myself to see if I still had the "chops" to engage the human race in social situations. She, too, had become a bartender in a pretty famous saloon in the West Village and so I thought there’d be other barflies as well, which made it easier to rationalize. As it turned out I met a woman that evening who had been an editor at Doubleday and was most interested in biography and memoir–she helped Brando pen his. I told her that I, too, wrote, and had written a memoir. I’m sure she was being polite by offering to read the first chapter of what I’d written and gave me her email address.
Within a week she contacted me and was very enthusiastic about what she’d read. She wanted to read the entire work and thought that three agents who she knew would also be interested. After reading the work she called with encouraging news. She thought that Cynthia Cannell, a very prominent literary agent, once a VP at Janklow Nesbitt and now owner of her own boutique lit agency would be the person to best represent it.
Right after New Year, Cynthia called me. She, too, thought the work terrific and wanted to meet. After meeting, she suggested I edit three sections which she would send to senior editors she knew. Sometime in March one of those editors at FS&G called and said she’d be interested provided I was better able to "marry" the diabetes with addiction. This to me was wonderful news. It gave me an opportunity to go back into the work, update it, and use the cutting edge of "new" psychological advances in making sense of what I and every other addict and diabetic experiences on various levels.
I returned the newer version back to her late July, early August. She read it and liked it. She told Cynthia that she was giving it to another senior editor and should he like it as well she was moving it up to the marketing and sales division.
Then we didn’t hear. And didn’t hear. I felt in my bones there was something wrong. That "something" began to become clearer as the economy began to unravel. At the end of October she called Cynthia to tell her that FS&G was not going to go ahead with new writers and unknown material. A few weeks after that, Cynthia learned that she was let go after many years of service. Cynthia suggested that I keep working on my new novel and then she’d revisit the "scene" with my work after the new year. But that didn’t sit well with me. I began to look for alternatives.
[Mark Coker] – What led you to Smashwords?
[Norman Savage] – Serendipity. I was researching how to serialize my memoir and/or novels online when I came across a forum where some person spoke about your site as a publishing tool. Curious, I took a look and liked what you had to say about it. I didn’t decide to actually publish there until I fooled around–for a couple of days–with my own blog. Deciding that a blog was not the right way for me to go in getting an entire serialized on it, I then contacted you. I’ve never had much faith in the publishing industry, or industries in general. Their existence is by and large for one purpose: to make money. How that’s done is usually dictated by what they think the marketplace is, or what they can manipulate the marketplace to be. And that’s usually the lowest common denominator.
We’ve all heard stories of some of our finest artists never seeing the light of day–in their lifetime–because the powers that be didn’t believe that their audience was either ready or could appreciate the work of these people. At one time, and not that long ago, if a senior editor at a publishing house thought well of your work they could (though it still could be a fight), get it published. Some of the best publishers and editors could take risks, and they did.
Now, before a major publisher takes a chance on a "new" voice, they have to run it by the sales and marketing department and they try to see whether or not it will sell 25,000 copies or else they usually won’t take a chance on it. They try to crunch numbers, but usually go by the past in making decisions: what used to sell. They can no more discern that than Hollywood can predict what movie we go to see. Everyone plays it "safe." It’s like never falling in love because you never want to get out of your own hip pocket. And the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
We know, of course, that most of the stuff that gets to us is dull, mind-numbing. Whether it’s in print, on a canvass, film, or music hall. It’s repetitive shit and, for the most part, having nothing whatsoever to do with our lives as we know them. In order to get published you now have to go to and come out of "writing workshops"; actors and directors come out of "film schools" or "acting workshops"; painters out of "A Fine Arts" program, etc. How many writers or actors or painters that are in the public eye today come out of the streets, madhouses, jails? How many were vagabonds, hobos, trapeze artists, merchant seaman, janitors, dockworkers, street sweepers? How many talk a living language?
Thoreau once told a young man who wanted to learn river navigation not to go to college, but to get his ass on a ship. You learn by living. Drink, have a few bad love affairs, drink again (or shoot some dope), get up at 5 a.m. and go to a job you hate, come home to woman you can’t stand being with, but can’t stand being away from, hit the keys like you’re in a heavyweight fight–because you are–and get up the next morning to do it all over again, and do it for many many years. Go on welfare, food stamps, grab on a rope tossed over, think it’s going to save you only to find no one on the other end and just go until the living stops. And it will, soon enough.
I know there is good stuff out there that’s being overlooked by the mainstream boys who will continue to publish safe shit: diet, gardening, how to, celebrity, and formulaic fiction and non-fiction that fits their idea of what writing is. It rattles their balls and their hearts when something different comes along.
However, there’s a problem that you face as well: since this is intended to be the most democratic medium to get stuff up on, how does the reader evaluate all the stuff that floats in this ether world? How much do we have to wade through to get a kernel of what we’re looking for? We complain, bitch and moan about critics, but the good ones filter some of the shit and saves us god awful time. Beside, some of the best fights are between critics; sometimes they’re better than the "art" itself. Hard to draw the line.
[Mark Coker] – How important is it to you to reach an audience?
[Norman Savage] – All writers/artists want an audience. We’re all "talking" to somebody, even if it’s to ourselves. Even Emily Dickensen, not the most outgoing of gals, had this one guy who she was hot for. Her poems were directed toward him. In a way it’s only to prove that we’re not mad and all this breathing and pain was not a waste of time.
[Mark Coker] – What’s the connection between diabetes and addiction in Junk Sick?
[Norman Savage] – I wrote Junk Sick after completing a heroin detox and then, faced with no job prospects, but living with a generous woman who loved me and was paying the rent, decided not to let all that I knew about diabetes and addiction, up until that point, go to waste. I knew that there was not a book that tackled the diabetes from an emotional perspective (there’s still very little of that today). I did not want it to be a "how to" book or one that just gives a very clinical definition on how to cope with a chronic illness, psychopathology, or a new diet.
Diabetes implies deprivation, sacrifice. I was diagnosed at age 11, and for a kid, coming into and going through puberty, that’s a high wire act without a net. I wanted the book to represent the chaos of growing up in a crazed Jewish family in Coney Island, coming down with a disease that no one was equipped to handle or cope with intelligently and, left to my own devices, how I managed to assuage the feeling of being "damaged." I thought that other people, diabetic or not, who try to cope with life’s madness, could gain some insight as to what governs them and maybe, in one way or another, get some insight into how they’re feeling and acting.
[Mark Coker] – In Junk Sick you write about how music, literature and art served as salves to calm your "crazy fascistic masochistic impulse of creation." What do you mean by that?
[Norman Savage] – It’s scientifically and psychologically proven that when a person engages the arts–reading, writing, really listening to music or looking at a painting–our minds secrete a certain amount of endogenous opioids–the bodies natural morphine–to soothe the system. It is not something we’re conscious of, but we do feel the effect. Why, we must ask, do we engage with those things if we derive no pleasure from them? We actively seek pleasure in our daily pursuit to avoid pain. Artists are no different, except that in their art, when it’s going really well, those same hormones are triggered. Every artist at one time or another got in "the flow" and usually that’s what they mean. Eugene O’Neill, that quintessential alcoholic expressed it this way, "Writing is a vacation from life."
But this is where it starts to get fucked-up. You can’t be "in the flow" all the time. Shit, sometimes the gods are not good, the words don’t come, the paint has no color, the sentences make no sense, the kid is crying, the wife needs to talk, or fuck, the water is stopped up, the landlord is screaming for his rent, the car has a flat, your tooth just broke, your shoelace snapped…
You know that in order to do this shit you need "time" but you never have enough of that–there’s too much shit to do. So what do you do? You deny yourself pleasures. You don’t do things that normal people do all the time: movies, TV, sex, companionship, food, etc. Now I’m not saying that you become a fucking monk, no, but that you try to give yourself enough time to try and let whatever art you have from whatever word gods sit on high to get through. So the artist is a bit "fascistic."
"Masochism" is, in a way, the flip-side of that: somewhere in your insanity you must enjoy whatever hell you’re putting yourself through. There has to be some secondary gains. You do have some kind of hidden agenda that you’re not aware of or copping to. And, of course, you do remember those times when the work was going good, even though your life was in the shitter. Those pockets of peace are worth a great deal of madness.
[Mark Coker] – Which authors or artists inspire you?
[Norman Savage] – All writers/artists are inspiring if they’re not bullshit artists because even the bad ones you learn from. You know some of them are pretenders, phonies, fakes, frauds, but they give you some courage and anger to do it your way. But the few who’ve been where you have get you through some hard days and nights and others, especially at the beginning of your writing allow you to be who you never thought you were allowed to be or are. They opened up, dynamited, gone over and around, what was or wasn’t there before: Hubert Selby, Jr, Jones/Baraka, Ginsberg, Eliot, Pound, Miller (Henry), Roth (Philip), Pynchon, Pound, Bukowski, Celine, Purdy, Hamsun, Morrison, Marquez, Crews and others, of course, many others. And, then, you got around to what the painters and musicians were doing and saw color and rhythm and tried to marry that, too. It’s style, man. You create it; you swing to it. It’s yours and yours alone. It can’t be copied and it can’t be faked. You just know it when you see it, hear it, or read it.
[Mark Coker] – What drives you to write?
[Norman Savage] – Mostly biology. It’s not a big thing; it’s much like pissing–when your bladder gets full, you just have to empty it because if you don’t the whole goddamn system implodes. Toni Morrison said in one of her great novels, "Sula," "if a writer doesn’t practice his craft, that craft will eventually turn against him." I don’t know if I got the quote exact, but it’s close enough. It is very difficult for me not to think a certain way, in a certain style, to a certain music. If I deny that–and I’ve tried to do it, sometimes for many years–I’ve usually wound up fucking myself.
I’m sure it’s a selfish thing, too, bound up in ego and all manner of forces, some of which I know and others I have no idea about. I suppose, when it comes down to it, it’s about "fucking" as well. I was always good with the women, but in the short term. Writing has most of the time satisfied my libidinal urges: striking hard at the keys, blasting letters onto a white sheet of paper, penetrating a canvas or the airwaves. And now, as my body betrays me, writing has not, my mind has not. The gods have certainly been gracious and have given me more than my right share.
[Mark Coker] – You write openly about your various addictions to a laundry list of legal and illegal drugs. Do you regret or treasure these experiences?
[Norman Savage] – "Regret" and "treasure" are two words that are not easily addressed. Each usually contains some of the other. It’s like a woman saying she loves you and you are unable to respond, whether you love her or not. It’s never that cut and dried. I know that people would like "simple" answers, but for them there will only be hard days and nights.
I "regret" wasting a lot of time tethered to a habit, but then again, I regret wasting a lot of time going into another ridiculous job. Alcohol and drugs opened up ways for me that were unsuspected, and they led me to other things that I wouldn’t have come across without altering my normal sense of reality. They helped make sense out of things and provided different ways of seeing and experiencing, not necessarily all good.
But, as I’ve said earlier, there’s a lot to be said for "bad" experiences, too. They are part of the whole, whatever the "whole" is or becomes. They have also fucked-up and altered certain relationships, and given others pain, that never did them or myself any good. But then, again, without them, I might have bitten the bullet before I had a chance to sort some of this out.
When I first started to experiment with drugs, I was lucky enough to be around some people, smarter than me, who used drugs as a tool and they taught me ways to work with various substances. For me, though, they finally became a way for escape, escape from what was really best in myself and, after losing what control I had, I had no way of returning to my previous state.
But, to answer your question, I do treasure many experiences–from making connections with things when alone and thinking, to experiences with others in the most common situations–and regret the dishonesty, to myself and others, that bordered my own particular cowardice and what fueled it.
[Mark Coker] – How is it that you’re still alive after struggling with diabetes for 50 years and nearly continuous drug addiction for 45 of those years?
[Norman Savage] – Luck, brother. Never underestimate it. Yes, we work and plan and scheme and pray and think we’re on top of our game, but dumb providence makes the difference in a great many respects. And fear, don’t forget down home gut-wrenching fear; that will get your attention. My memoir makes clear just how helpful "luck" and "fear" were and are.
My genes, except for the "diabetic" one (if my disease wasn’t psychosomatically orchestrated), are apparently good. Also, within my madness and mania, I never missed an insulin shot, ever. The doctor, who became my friend, and took care of me for a long time, was a past president of The American Diabetic Association, wasn’t judgmental, and always was not only in my corner, but gave me other docs to sort out other ills.
Women were always far better to me than I was to them and kept me going long after I should have "stopped." I’ve been clean for a couple of years now and stopped on my own. I kicked junk three years ago by going into a looney bin and then coming out and getting on a public Buphenorphine program, then stopped going there after being clean for a year, and stopped drinking two years ago because I wanted to.
I do not like the word "recovered" or "recovering." I used to go to a lot of AA meetings and never liked all the hand-holding, sharing and higher power kind of thing, but I did like, and needed, the social lubricant. But I stopped going at a certain point. What exactly am I recovering from? Desire? How the hell can you recover (and why would you want to?) from "desire?"
People drink or drug because there is an absence inside us, and we "desire" to fill that absence. We fill it with drink, drug, sex, others, TV, gambling, eating, working, or praying. But that kind of desire remains, always. Usually it’s the misguided desire for the other: mother or father. And that "other" is dressed in drag, disguised. It’s finally false and utterly impossible to reproduce. But we still search.
I believe, it’s only when you try to come to grips with that that you get on with it and go on. There was a huge study done by NIAAA comparing what mode of "therapy" worked best for the drug addict/alcoholic. They compared AA, therapy, and pharmacological interventions. Each of them were dismally inefficient. Most people who do stop using alcohol and/or drugs and who were really addicted (not those fakers who go on TV or to meetings wanting to meet people and get laid, published or "networked"), do so by "spontaneous remission." They just decide one day that they’d had enough and quit. Quietly.
[Mark Coker] – What’s your day job? What are some of the other jobs you’ve held over your lifetime?
[Norman Savage] – I’d rather not mention my day job. It’s legit and it’s hard, but it suits my purposes. Aside from being a bartender from time to time and before I had four toes amputated, I was a non-profit whore. Whoever wanted me, I lifted my skirts for. I taught, wrote grants, counseled kids and adults in alcohol and drug treatment settings, taught nurses and interns about diabetic management and skills (circa, 1984), drove taxi’, worked supermarkets, administered grants in major medical institutions, and worked with kids who had ADD & ADHD.
[Mark Coker] – When I asked you for ten things about you, you listed, "the impossibility of not lying." Do truth and fiction blur to you? Is your memoir truth, fiction, or both?
[Norman Savage] – Yes, "words" are a construct. They’re made up. It’s like trying to tell someone your dream. Yes, you can almost, almost describe it, but you can never quite get the colors right, the texture right, you can never really say what you mean. Some, of course, are much better at getting at the right word than others, but, brother, that takes a whole lot of work. "Words," too, are straightjacketed; they strain and crack under the weight of too many tongues.
I try to get it right, at least as "right" as I know it, but I’m sure if other interested parties were to describe the same experience they had with me they’d remember it, see it, and word it in other ways. Truth and fiction indeed do blur. My friend, Jack, calls it "friction." Melville, too, in his great work, "Billy Budd," (or was it "Benito Cereno"?) says this about the rainbow: how can you really tell where the blue ends and the orange begins, and then to red, to green, to yellow, to fuscia, to purple, to gold? How do you really tease those things out?
My memoir is as close to "truth" as I know it for me. I did not make-up or fabricate any of it; I didn’t have to. Dizzy Dean, a once great baseball pitcher, once famously remarked: "It ain’t bragging if I done it." Other people would disagree with some or all of it. That’s O.K. Let them write one of their own with their own take on things. What is always fiction is how I put the words together; one word, one sentence after the next. In that respect, it’s entirely up to me.
[Mark Coker] – Have you been truthful in this interview?
[Norman Savage] – Yes. Today. But as this cat Zizek said, "I’d rather be inconsistent, than inconsequential." If I learn of something that makes more sense to me, then I’d be a fool not to entertain that.
[Mark Coker] – What do you want written on your epitaph?
[Norman Savage] – There’s a writer who I’d admired long before I came to correspond with him briefly, Harry Crews. There’s something he said that I’d like on my gravestone. And, Mark, since I don’t know many people these days, maybe you’d be so kind? Here’s what I’d like on the rock: "I never wanted to be well-rounded, and I do not admire well-rounded people nor their work. So far as I can see, nothing good in the world has ever been done by well-rounded people. The good work is done by people with jagged, broken edges, because those edges cut things and leave an imprint, a design." I want to leave a stain, Mark, I want it to say that I was here and lived it through.
[Mark Coker] – Thanks Norman!
Where to buy Junk Sick:
Junk Sick: Confessions of an Uncontrolled Diabetic is available at Smashwords for $2.99 as a multi-format, DRM-free ebook. Visit http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/715
To learn more about Norman Savage, visit his Smashwords author page.
This interview originally appeared at the Smashwords Blog.